Liberty can be the antidote to populism

Jack Cryer

February 2, 2024

When Covid hit, there were three questions on everyone’s minds: what is it, where did it come from, and how do we stop it? European Council President Charles Michel has said that the growing trend of populism is “like a virus”, yet along with many European leaders has failed to answer, or even ask the questions we all demanded in those difficult years.

While definitions vary, most descriptions of populism involve a sense that the ‘ordinary people’ have had their concerns disregarded by the ‘established elite’. This is often accompanied by a distrust of experts and academia, in favour of (in the words of William Riker) the position that the “will of the people” ought to be government policy; that “the people are free when their wishes are law.”

There are two fundamental misunderstandings at the heart of populism. Firstly is the lack of recognition that even in a democracy, there will always be some form of oligarchy. Power in a representative democracy must by definition be held between elections by a small group of representatives. 

The second is in their general criticism of experts. Experts are good at providing a certain type of evidence in a specific field, and should be trusted to do so. Populists should be more specific in their (perhaps unintentional) diagnosis of a very real problem: experts stepping outside their evidence-collecting field and attempting to prescribe policies for millions of individuals. No expert or centralised body can marshal the dispersed information and preferences required to plan society from the top-down. In the words of economist Christopher Coyne: “By attempting to replace markets with expert rule, planning removes the very mechanism that is necessary to facilitate large-scale social cooperation.” 

The solution to the problems populists identify is precisely the opposite of strengthening the power of ‘anti-establishment candidates’. It is limiting the power of whatever political elite may exist and allowing ‘ordinary people’ to make individual choices and take back control of their own lives.

Populism is a complicated ideology with a variety of causes. While possible origins may be found in the rate of change of immigration, culture and identity politics, I will focus here on a possible economic origin.

It may, perhaps surprisingly, be found in the past decades of revolutionary innovation. This would not have been possible without our unprecedented levels of global trade and openness. This liberalisation of global commerce has brought billions out of poverty and changed the world.  

However, even the best changes aren’t unequivocally good for all involved. We are sometimes less considerate than we could be of the ‘destruction’ aspect of ‘creative destruction’. The fact is that many have been left behind by the geographical movement of jobs and the changing make-up of an economy which progress inevitably brings. This effect is only compounded by communications technology and social media which make the successes of others more evident to those who already feel left behind.

The improvements many have experienced in recent years, have  been accompanied by  stagnating productivity and output growth in other areas. Various governments have been guilty of instituting policies which restrict housing and energy supply, labour markets and lifestyle choices. At the same time they have increased taxes, welfare spending and regulations on businesses. 

Given the problems some in society were already facing, it is perhaps little wonder that they have turned to the energetic, purposeful and determined populist movement as an alternative. The supposedly liberal establishment has served them little but a hollow course of paternalism, restraint and economic lethargy.  

In their blanket condemnation of technocrats, populists risk disassociating themselves from the evidence-based methodology experts espouse. Having done so, it is easy to blame one’s problems on whichever issue du jour seems most appropriate. Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and certain wings of the Brexit movement looked to blame immigration, ‘experts’ and EU leaders rather than devising evidence-based policies to address their mostly-legitimate concerns.

It is of course much simpler to blame refugees for our issues than poor urban planning regulation.  It is more catchy to complain about the uncaring Brussels elite than the problems which come from the poor incentives that windfall taxes create for energy markets. This explains, for example, why criticisms of immigration often bear little relation to actual immigration figures. 

The solutions will be found in a return to evidence-based policy which promotes growth and limits the ability of the perceived ‘elite’ to restrict it. There is room for significant progress to be made, particularly for those who have felt the impact of globalisation and poor policy (and who therefore feel the pull of populism) the strongest. 

Liberal policies boost per capita GDP growth and long-term employment while removing barriers to individuals making decisions about how to improve their lives. The issue with populism is that the will of the people cannot be aggregated into a person, platform or policy. The only solution is to provide individuals with the necessary framework to improve their own lives. Time and again countries around the world have shown that if this responsibility is given back to people that they will use it wisely. 

We will find that populism is a much more tamable and human enemy than we once thought if we honestly ask ourselves these three questions. What is it? Where did it come from? How do we stop it? Populists will learn to appreciate and trust liberal politics again if we show a true desire to understand and find solutions to their concerns. As long as we take steps towards a norm of evidence-based policy and empathetic discourse, then a strengthened European liberal democracy will follow.


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